We have all seen, time and time again, how competition has enhanced the quality and lowered the cost of smart phones, computers, and tablets. Improved products are born from companies competing. Moreover, innovation accelerates and prices are reduced. Consumers win when companies compete for their business.
What is a set-top box?
A set-top box (STB) is an electronic device that contains a television tuner input. It connects to a television set and an external source, which can be cable or satellite TV. The STB then allows the signals from your cable (or satellite) provider to be displayed on your television screen –letting you tune into all of the content included in your subscription.
Very simply, an STB is the box that allows you to change TV channels. But today, STBs are much more. Some provide a gateway to the Internet, music channels, YouTube, Netflix, and much more. In some cases you can even use your video game console to watch TV. STBs are your portal to cool content, everywhere. Your portal to the future, your time, your place – your freedom to watch what you want and how to watch it.
Having a real choice means that the box you purchase at retail can receive all of the cable programming channels that an operator-leased box provides. Otherwise, it’s not a real alternative.
Why are we talking about it?
We all enjoy widespread choice in mobile phones, computers, tablets, game consoles, and all of the other consumer electronics we now take for granted. Since the government broke up our country’s monopoly landline provider, AT&T, nobody tells us what phone we have to use. Companies have to compete to get you to buy their devices. This competition results in innovation, lower prices, and choice.
Choice is also important to driving innovation in the STB we use to watch television. Yet, despite the plethora of choices with other consumer electronics, 99% of television watching consumers still rent a box from their service provider.
In recent years, there have been life-changing innovations in the STB market, such as the digital video recorder (DVR), connected televisions, Roku, Chromecast and AppleTV, just to name a few. These are all are products of innovation motivated by consumer choice. And this should be only the beginning.
What is the Law?
In 1996, Congress implemented a law to provide such choice. Section 629 of the Communications Act directs the FCC to ensure that there is a market for retail TV interface boxes. So the FCC implemented rules requiring cable operators to provide a security card that both retail boxes and operator boxes can use to unscramble and display scrambled cable channels. This “common reliance” on the same security standard is essential to consumers having choice because it ensures that retail boxes get all the same cable channels as operator-leased boxes.
The concept is simple: Consumers should have the ability to purchase an STB at a retail outlet and not have to rely on leasing a box from their service provider that they will never own.
But the FCC’s efforts to enact the law and promote its goal of a competitive market for video navigation devices hasn’t succeeded. So Congress recently mandated that the FCC create the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC) as a working group of experts and stakeholders from a wide range of perspectives mandated that allowed the FCC to create the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC), with the goal of creating new rules that will let consumers use the devices of their choice. It is supposed to encourage competition and innovation in consumer navigation devices going forward. And it’s your key to watching TV your way.
Network operators will not release their grip on consumers without a major battle. So consumers and innovators must work together to ensure that access there is access to direct-to-consumer online streaming services and alternatives to traditional pay-TV content on the device they want – not just the one provided by their cable company.
What does this mean for me?
What does all this mean? It means that consumers will be harmed by being denied the benefits of innovation, lower prices, and choice that competition brings. If the FCC doesn’t act, nothing will change. Consumers will be stuck paying $231 a year to lease outdated set-top boxes provided by their cable operator.
If retail boxes cannot access all of the same programming channels as leased boxes, the STB you have now or may one day purchase, likely will not work if you move, switch cable companies, or your provider implements new security technology. This issue is not just about cable television. And it is not just about STBs. It is about your right to choose, and about competition, innovation, and affordability. It is about your future. Stand up and demand more television viewing freedom, more consumer options, and more innovation that produces so many new wonderful options.
The goal is to make providing choice to consumers easier and more open so more companies can compete. You want greater interoperability among video, music and game platforms at home, not less. Tell the FCC to protect consumer choice and promote competition in the set-top box marketplace.
Now is the time to stand up for your rights as a TV viewer. Stand up for your choice in how you want to access TV programming.